Somewhere on the mountainous route between Bologna and Florence, Italy, Claire Pomykala 21C knew she had made a big mistake. What she expected to be nothing more than a challenging bike ride had turned into nearly 75 miles of torture. Not only did Pomykala have to push through more than 6,000 feet in elevation gain, but when a storm swooped in, she also found herself riding against a cold, driving rain. After exerting almost all her energy on the long, steady climb, she found herself heading downhill, cycling against a whipping wind, her clothes and shoes completely soaked through.
“The wind felt like it was cutting my skin,” Pomykala remembers. “I was crying. I was freezing—my teeth were chattering and my whole body was shivering.”
When she couldn’t take the torment one moment longer, she stopped and called for help. Her travel hosts—whom she had connected with on a mobile app geared for touring cyclists—told her not to panic, but to find someplace warm while they traveled to retrieve her.
“I found a little house on the side of the road, and I worked up the courage to knock on the door,” she says. “An older couple answered, but they spoke no English. And I spoke no Italian. So I pulled out my iPhone and used the Google translate app to try to convince them that I was harmless and to let me stay there while I waited for someone to pick me up.”
The couple agreed to give her access to their garage where she was able to change out of her drenched clothes into some warm, dry ones. Pomykala’s travel hosts showed up in about an hour, explained the situation fully to the sheltering duo, and drove her back to their home, where she promptly passed out from fatigue.
“I was an emotional mess—I had never been so tired and scared and alone as I was on that ride,” Pomykala says.
“But now I look back at the experience and marvel at it,” she admits. “I biked nearly eight hours by myself across tough terrain in bad weather. Then I found a way to communicate what I desperately needed to a bewildered couple despite our language barriers. And with no other option, I allowed myself to be vulnerable and to trust in the kindness of complete strangers. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
It was in moments like this—moments where she tested the limits of her body and mind—during her four-plus months biking alone across Europe that Pomykala realized she could accomplish just about anything.
Even face her deep-rooted anxieties about life after college.
THE FREEDOM OF BIKING
Pomykala discovered her love for biking—and the freedom it bestows—while a student at Emory. “I bought my first bike for $150 off Craigslist when I was a sophomore,” she says. “I was sick of paying for Uber to get around town for things like doctor’s appointments. At the beginning, I used it for just general commuting when I needed to, but then the pandemic hit and biking became much more important to me.”
Early COVID-19 restrictions meant that Pomykala, a member of the Emory crew team, could no longer row to get her exercise. So she turned to biking to help stay fit—both physically and mentally. “Since everything was locked down and indoor activities were nonexistent, I biked everywhere—to parks, farmers’ markets, and meetups with friends,” she says. “Biking became my No. 1 way to cope with COVID.”
Friends soon introduced her to longer-distance biking, showing her their favorite routes in and around the metro area. “I began to take it a little more seriously and built up my skills enough to ride out to Stone Mountain and back,” she says. “In fact, during my time at Emory, I learned almost the entire map of Atlanta through biking routes and wandering around neighborhoods. It was a huge confidence boost because by the time I graduated, I could get almost anywhere in the city without a GPS.”
Pomykala liked volunteering at Emory’s bike shop, the Fixie, where she helped others work on their rides. It was at the shop and on bike routes on and off campus, that she made many of her closest friends in college. “Emory has such a warm and accepting bike community,” she says. “We talked to each other about life, of course, and about biking, from basic maintenance to tips on touring.”
The lure of going on longer bike tours is what led Pomykala to first her big trip, which she embarked upon right after graduating from Emory with a bachelor’s degree in human health. Instead of flying or hopping in a car to get home to Baltimore, she decided to bike there—albeit over a leisurely and circuitous route that took her through Savannah and to friends’ homes along the way.
She used her Instagram account (@livingbybike) to document her biking adventures and started building an audience of friends and fellow solo travelers. Today, more than 13,000 people on the social media platform follow her posts.
To be completely honest, however, it wasn’t just the sense of solo adventure that sent her off cycling around the South. It was also a way to avoid her deepest fear.
“I was afraid about life after college,” Pomykala admits. “Unlike many graduates, I didn’t have a job lined up. I wasn’t continuing on to a master’s or doctorate program. I didn’t really have a plan for the future. I was terrified about what was expected of me after earning my degree.”
Hundreds of miles, several states, and a month-and-a-half later, she arrived safely home in Baltimore. “The trip could have gone faster, but I didn’t want it to go faster,” Pomykala says. “Besides, I learned a lot about being a bike tourist and about what I was capable of along the way.”
One of the key things she learned: She still wasn’t ready to face the working world.
Her next step? Take all the cash she had saved up—including graduation money from her grandparents—and embark upon an ever bigger, more daring biking trip across Europe.
JOURNEYS ACROSS EUROPE
Pomykala knew she needed a better bike that could hold up over the rigors of a longer, more demanding tour. Top bikes can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but she found a used one for around $900 that would serve her well; it was lighter weight and had higher quality parts than her old model.
“I am attached emotionally to both bikes,” she adds.
After some weeks of basic planning, on September 1, 2021, she packed up her new model into a giant cardboard box and checked it in for her flight to London’s Heathrow Airport. Upon arrival, she unpacked her bike right in the middle of the airport’s baggage claim area, put it all together, and was soon ready to roll.
“I was jet lagged but also full of adrenaline because I was in a new country,” Pomykala says. “I couldn’t wait to start exploring.”
She originally had plotted out a wide-ranging European tour of three months in length overall, spending her first five days in London then taking the ferry over to the Netherlands. But just a few days into her trip, she liked England and her hostel so much that she lengthened that leg to 10 days before she decided to ditch her itinerary to spend several weeks biking across the UK instead.
“I was having fun and felt comfortable there, so I figured I would go see Scotland and Wales,” she says. “When I told my host in Reading what I was doing, he just laughed and spread some maps out on the floor to help me come up with a new travel plan.”
She wound up touring in a big circle around the UK, sometimes staying in hostels or camping, but mainly relying on hosts she found through the couch-surfing-like app called WarmShowers. “It’s a widely known resource for cyclists,” Pomykala says. “It may sound a little scary, but it’s safe and easy. Essentially, I would search in the city I was traveling to and would message potential hosts to find a place to crash for a night. I was on a tight budget and staying with a host is entirely free and they usually feed you, too—which is great if you’ve biked 60 miles in a day and are exhausted and hungry.”
Pomykala returned to London in late October, celebrating Halloween there before finally leaving the island for the Netherlands and the European mainland. During the next several weeks, she biked through Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, France, and Spain. A friend she met along the way even drove her into Portugal so she could mark off 10 countries traveled across more than four months of traveling.
One of the highlights of her trip was, indeed, all the friends she made along the way. “I made so many incredible friendships with people of my own age, as well as some much older and younger than me,” she says. “I try to stay in touch with them as best I can. It helps that my Instagram creates a place we can easily comment on each other’s journeys and lives.”
Though she spent a great deal of time on her bike—isolated and focused on the road in front of her—the relationships she made in towns across Europe boosted her confidence immensely.
“They were a vital part of the journey,” Pomykala says. “There’s so much human connection and friendship and love that’s available in the world, even from people you’ve just met. It’s helped me grow as a person and got me out of my comfort zone. Now I have a much easier time forming lasting and meaningful relationships with people because I was forced to walk up and talk to people and ask them for directions or just start a conversation.”
Making connections along the way was critical because otherwise Pomykala was completely on her own.
“Outside of these new friends and kind strangers, I was my only support system the entire trip,” she says. “There were dozens and dozens of crazy challenges I had to face on my own, like when both my credit cards got hacked and I had no money available to me in Scotland. I had to figure it out for myself. I was already self-reliant when I was at college at Emory, but this trip really reinforced my ability to find the solution for just about any problem I could encounter.”
Even face her deep-rooted anxieties about life after college.
LANDING A JOB ACCIDENTALLY
A funny thing happened on Pomykala’s trip to Europe. The main thing she was avoiding by going on this journey—the next stage in her life and the prospect of having to find a job—caught up with her.
“I was touring the UK when I got a note from a friend back in the US who interviewed for a job at a tech start-up but decided it wasn’t the right fit for her,” she says. “She thought, however, it was a good fit for me, so she passed my name along to them.”
Pomykala decided to apply, even though she had limited means to do so. “There I was in my hostel in London in mid-October, scouring through my Google Drive to find any old version of my resume so I could download it to my iPhone and edit it,” she says. “Luckily, my friend helped me apply.”
She wound up getting a first interview—remotely on her iPhone—from London. “Even though I wasn’t really prepared to be interviewing, I guess I did OK,” she says. “I did my second interview from The Hague, Netherlands,” she says. “And then finally I got a job offer when I was in Duisberg, Germany.”
Pomykala promptly accepted. “It was such a crazy thing to happen, because I started this trip with little money and I expected to be dirt poor and jobless when I returned home,” she says. “My previous experience with job searching had been so horrible and soul crushing that I rode off on my bike rather than faced more of it. And here I found an interesting job with good pay and a promising future almost by accident. It was such a relief to be able to finish my trip across Europe without that hanging over my head.”
After more than four months traveling by bike, Pomykala flew back home to Baltimore from Barcelona in early January. She started her job as a product manager for the tech startup a couple weeks later.
It’s not by accident that her approach to her biking journeys proved to be a good fit for her working situation.
“The job is completely remote, which allows me to be something of a digital nomad,” Pomykala says. “I started working from my family’s home in Baltimore, but I was able to spend a whole month working from Atlanta in April, as well as all of July traveling across the Northeast U.S. visiting friends. Digital nomadism allows me to take my job with me, wherever I go—whether it’s a travel host’s home, or my friend’s living room, or the café next door. It also means I don’t have to wait for vacation time to visit somewhere new.”
With a steady income in hand and a fear conquered, she’s also able to confront with confidence any new challenges she faces. “Instead of having to find a place to sleep or food to eat, right now I’m figuring out how to do things like file my taxes and invest properly for my retirement and maintain a work-life balance,” Pomykala says. “But since I got back from Europe, where I learned so much about myself and what I was capable of, I know that whatever happens I can make it through. I know I will find a way and succeed.”
Written by Roger Slavens. Photography and videos courtesy of Claire Pomykala. Design by Elizabeth Hautau Karp. Illustrations from Getty Images.